“I still remember when ‘horror’ films were not so much the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, ‘knowing’ tips of the hat to the genre that they’ve become…”
The Belko Experiment has been described as “Office Space meets Battle Royale“, which on balance is probably about right. Absurdly comical, yet horrific and unnerving at times.
In truth, I’m a little torn on this one. I still remember when ‘horror’ films were not so much the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, ‘knowing’ tips of the hat to the genre that they’ve become, but genuinely disturbing experiences in their own right, in which the director would set out to frighten the living beJeezus out of those that might dare to watch them, with scant chance of any light relief along the way.
Of course, as with any genre, only a small percentage of attempts ever truly succeeded in achieving this – think Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, The Blair Witch Project and so on – but they were all created with one sole purpose in mind, to be properly frightening, for frightening’s sake.
Greg McLean – no stranger to ‘straight’ horror – best known as he is for a piece of horror very much cut from that particular cloth, Wolf Creek – is the director responsible for The Belko Experiment, which is essentially a darkly humorous, ironic horror, centered around the rather awkward theme of kill or be killed.
It would be unfair however to suggest that The Belko Experiment doesn’t contain genuinely unsettling moments that are designed to strike fear into your very core. It very definitely does. There is perhaps after all no better vehicle for unnerving an audience than converting something that would be considered a perfectly safe, albeit dull haven – such as people’s banal, every day working environments – into the scene of untold terror. Better still, why not make it a setting from which there really is genuinely no escape, no matter how hard you try.
The events take place in a lone-standing, non-descript concrete office block on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia – the home of Belko Industries – in which an English speaking staff from a whole variety of backgrounds assemble for work as they would on any other day. With their morning coffees barely touched, they are suddenly informed via an unrecognised voice over the building’s intercom, that they cannot now leave the premises. The thought of being marooned at work would be bad enough for some, but when that’s followed up with an insistence that the staff must murder two of their number within half an hour “or there will be repercussions,” then you’ve got all the ingredients right there for a properly bad day at the office.
And so, to the jarring sound of impenetrable external shutters slamming shut over each and every window and feasible means of escape, the Belko experiment begins…
With more than a whiff of a Big Brother surveillance society pervading, it becomes increasingly clear to one and all entombed within the building that there is no escaping this growing, potentially gruesome crisis, and it’s not long before critical divisions begin to appear among the employees, and fractious behaviour abounds.
There are those insistent upon calm and reason, whilst there is a splinter group believing that in light of rapidly unfolding events, the only route forward is to consider the good of the many, and to make some extremely tough decisions. These are decisions that are not going to bode well for some. One thing is very clear though; ultimately everyone is bound to play by the same rules; the rules being set by this mysterious, elusive voice, and there appears to be not a damned thing that anyone can do about it.
It is this sense of desperation and helplessness that is the chief triumph of The Belko Experiment and Maclean conveys this effectively throughout the piece. It is particularly interesting to watch the gradual decay of inter-employee relations, as petty work rivalries soon escalate out of all control. An increasing sense of despair envelops and disables many, yet it drives others to decisive, brutal action.
Even forgiving the film’s rather clumsy, somewhat unnecessary conclusion, and the unavoidably tension-sapping effect of employing an overly familiar cast – something of a who’s who of minor roles in American film and TV – there is, however, no doubting that The Belko Experiment is a highly effective horror whose approach lies somewhere between old school frightener and post-Scream era dark humour.
My only minor ambivalence to The Belko Experiment stems from a personal preference of what a horror by definition should be, and thus probably shouldn’t be considered to be any sort of noteworthy criticism, as such.
Take it for what it is.
There’s nothing particularly innovative here if truth be told, and it’s far from an original concept in the first place, but what it does have to offer is handled well. It’s refreshingly punchy with good momentum and mercifully doesn’t dwell heavily upon any distracting personal back stories that would offer little or nothing to the film as a whole.
The Belko Experiment is a well executed (excuse the pun if you’d be so kind) modern horror that should inject a suitably unsettling 90 minutes into your day.